It was the early winter of 2010 when audiences witnessed one of the messiest break-ups on network television since Kevin caught Winnie smooching the lifeguard in the series finale of The Wonder Years or Sam and Diane’s on-again, off-again relationship for six years on Cheers. Sure, we’re still all reeling from those heartbreaking “plots” but that’s just it – those were just plots in a scripted show and it might be several lifetimes ago in celebrity news cycles but many were glued to their sets when night-time talk show host, Conan O’Brien severed his relationship of 22 years with NBC. After network executives told O’Brien The Tonight Show was moving back to midnight to accommodate Jay Leno’s return from prime time, O’Brien refused to not only break tradition of the famous talk show’s timeslot but that he wouldn’t be the first host in the show’s history to go on the next day. And that was it.
This is a documentary based on the time frame which saw O’Brien’s departure from NBC to the end of his tour. Obviously, we know what happened after the tour – he made it back on television in the form of his self-titled talk show on TBS but for months leading up to the success of his own show, O’Brien was prohibited from appearing on television, the internet or radio for six months.
However, the clever Harvard graduate decided upon the idea of a 30-city/42 live-show tour, hilariously enough called “The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour” which would travel across North America with the intention to flout NBC’s efforts to keep him out of the public eye while allowing him to keep in touch with fans, live out a rock star’s dream (minus groupies...) and most importantly, to keep his staff employed.
It was an opportunity for television director, Rodman Flender to document O’Brien’s moves, almost like a fly-on-the-wall, approaching the whole experience like a classic rockumentary with candid moments. Flender captures the best of O’Brien and not just the O’Brien we’re accustomed to every night; the one that dances with an imaginary string or imitates the cliché of a nerd – we see the doting father to his young children, the loving husband to his supportive wife and the encouraging boss to his members of staff. With Flender’s ability to wander freely and record snippets of shows, rehearsals and writing sessions, you see the showman’s dynamic with his employees and it’s an endearing one.
In the documentary, we meet some of the important people in O’Brien’s life and one of them is his right-hand assistant, Sona Movesesian; a sharp, young woman who understands O’Brien to a cue. The rapport between the two is engaging, the way he teases her when she mixes up his take-out order or when applying “powder”, making her giggle uncontrollably in a chair outside his bathroom. Their relationship isn’t built strictly on work but has that notion of fun in it as they both clearly have a good solid friendship and work well with each other. It’s moments like this that make the documentary and the whole, behind-the-scenes familiarity, something exciting and quite fun for the audience to watch. It isn’t often you see O’Brien like this on screen. He is able to be his own “Conan” but he still comes off affable in nature. There are times when he self-mockingly behaves as a prima donna and outlandish but he does it with flow and it’s laughable.
Now obviously there is footage captured where you’ll see O’Brien at a low but that’s the beauty of this bare-bones story. You see him as a man and not just a performer. Just because he wears a suit, comes every night and tells us jokes and interviews stars, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have an ounce of feeling in him or has lost it through the years of tackling show business. As the shows begin, we see things brighten up for him and create a mood where he is moving on as we watch him flail on stage in strobe lights and wear costumes. All of it basically epitomizes his liveliness but mid-tour, his pace takes a toll. O’Brien worries about losing his voice while growing increasingly lethargic and peevish, at one point losing patience with his staff, his fans and even his loyal sidekick Andy Richter. A part of him doesn’t care if people know it and for good reason. It’s his drive. O’Brien works hard and expects hard work back. That drive he has inside himself, he compels the same effort for his staff. Plus, who doesn’t get cranky after an overdose of work? It doesn’t define O’Brien and who he is – the anger and the frustration. It’s all quite natural and human, actually, especially for someone who is touring non-stop and has to always be “on” and performing to the best of his ability.
One of the things most audiences, especially fans and critics of Conan O’Brien are eager to hear is his side of the whole story with NBC. You’ll hear from him and the disagreements he had with NBC and the frustration in his voice, the anger and that feeling of being let down by a place you knew as home but he doesn’t dwell on it too much when he’s focused on his latest venture. There is a point where O’Brien’s bitterness towards the network and those responsible for his departure is heard on film, without any trace of humour, as he admits, “Sometimes, I’m so angry, I can’t even breathe.”
It’s tough to imagine what he went through but during quiet moments on the tour, where O’Brien is sitting by himself, you’ll see a distraught and bruised man but one who’s trying to understand the outpouring of affection and love for him but not able to add up how it didn’t work out in the form of keeping The Tonight Show.
While touring and meeting with fans, O’Brien clearly proves he loves them, defying his producer and managing to get outside and meet with them and sign autographs despite a large crowd and a tight deadline to get on the road again in a few short hours. He has heart and this documentary if anything, doesn’t verify that heart he has but shows further proof of it. He’s a man who understands who he is and how he got there and that’s important especially for someone who’s in the limelight nearly every day.
While on tour, O’Brien plays the guitar and reworks Willie Nelson’s “On The Road Again” to the creatively written, “I Want My Own Show Again” with a rockabilly look and from all angles, he’s a tireless entertainer. More than anything, you’ll notice him having the time of his life while interacting with longtime sidekick, Andy Richter or while talking to his friends who guest starred on the tour and performing covers with his band and two backup singers.
Conan O’Brien is a magnetic presence and someone who never fails to make you smile and laugh. As seen by those around him, everyone watches him, partially because he’s calling the shots but because he always has something to say and that’s quite enjoyable. He’s genuinely surprised by the affection of fans and even takes the time to talk to some of them who have driven far and wide just for two hours of a night to see him. He’s grateful and says for the first time in his showbiz career that people are actually paying to see him perform. It isn’t a gimmick. You can see him being sensitive and compassionate, not at all a snob.
This isn’t a biography of any sort even though he describes briefly the difficulty of growing up upper-middle class in a largely upper-class neighbourhood in Massachusetts but rather, insight into what goes through a mind so artistic and comedic. If anything, O’Brien is one of the most personable people you’ll ever meet and this documentary proves it. In a segment where he and the writing team are coming up with material, a part of him pushes his team to be better and loosens them up by having them talk into a banana.
The film earns its title. Conan O’Brien truly can’t stop and that’s actually quite commendable and worthy of admiration. For someone to go through the boxing rings of the industry and going through his own internal struggles, he proved that good things do happen. It was those words he uttered on his last show in 2010 as the brief host of The Tonight Show that demonstrate, “If you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.”
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop reveals what happens when O’Brien himself has taken his own values and articulated it, making it something more than just words. Words require action and he carefully proved that for two months while baring his passions and vulnerabilities for the camera, being who he is and what he always dreamt of being: a performer.
Stars: * * * * of 5
Production: Pariah, Abramorama
Cast: Conan O’Brien, Andy Richter, Sona Movesesian, Aaron Bleyaert
Directed by: Rodman Flender
Running Time: 89 minutes
Rated R for language.
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